Tripoli, Libya—At a mud-caked intersection this month, some hundred-and-fifty feet from the front line, a lanky militia fighter approached and then abruptly turned around when he saw me, a Westerner. I’ve been covering Libya’s conflicts for years and noticed some minor but distinctive details about his appearance: a do-rag tied around his head, an olive green tactical vest, and perhaps a certain military bearing. The Libyan commander I was with confirmed it, with a chuckle: “That’s not a Libyan look.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was inside a poured-concrete villa that served as the living quarters for a group of war-hardened Syrian fighters. Seated before me on a plush purple couch, behind a coffee table strewn with ash-trays and blown-glass decanters, was the Syrians’ leader, a thirty-four-year-old former Syrian military officer named Ahmed, and two other Syrian fighters. Numbering roughly five hundred on this section of the front, they told me they’d been in Libya several days and were part of a larger contingent of roughly two thousand Syrian militiamen that started arriving a month ago, along with Turkish military personnel. There are plans, they said, for an additional six thousand Syrian fighters.
Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, involving the deployment of Syrian fighters, is the latest chess move in a long-running civil war that followed the 2011 revolution, the NATO-led intervention, and the overthrow of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Since then, this oil-rich country has disintegrated into a patchwork of regions, towns, and militias sparring over power and wealth.